Broke Freelancer to $8MM Web Design Business (in 7 Steps)
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In 2008 I built my first real estate website. Fast forward to today and I’ve now got a thriving business with over 50 employees valued at close to $8MM.
Now here’s the thing – anyone, if they worked hard enough, could achieve the same result… because when I started, I had practically nothing… less than nothing.
I had no money, no skills, a cheap laptop, and only a few months earlier I had graduated college with a degree in economics that as it turns out, I would never use.
I also had no idea how to make websites. I didn’t know how to code. I wasn’t a photoshop expert.
Here’s what I did know: I wanted to work online.
And in this video I’ll share with you the 7 exact steps that I followed to get where I am today – steps that if I had understood earlier, would have helped me to get here in a fraction of the time.
Step 1: The ‘A-Ha’ Moment
For most of my life, I had pretty much just blindly followed the path that had been laid out in front of me.
After graduating college, my dad had an idea to start a real estate brokerage. That idea went up in flames, but before it did, I had the opportunity to build a website for it using a popular real estate website template builder.
I LOVED building that website – working on my computer from the comfort of my bedroom, reading photoshop tutorials to improve my skills, and the indescribable feeling of seeing the final result of all the hours I had invested.
Anyway, after that business failed, I decided that I would be a real estate agent, and the first thing I did was build another website for myself.
That website won an award for ‘site of the month’ → I put a little graphic on the site saying ‘if you want a website like this, contact me’ → and from there, I got my first paying client.
This was my ‘a-ha’ moment. The realization that I could actually make a living from this.
I think we all need an ‘aha’ moment to realize that we can escape the 9-5 career path, and chances are that if you chose to watch this video, you’ve already had it in some shape or form.
Let me know what that moment was for you guys in the comments below. It will be a fun reflection for you, and helpful for others.
Step 2: Master Freelancing
Before I could start my business, I needed design skills. I needed to be able to generate leads and convert them into sales. I needed MONEY. I needed reasons that people would even want to do business with me in the first place ( aka a portfolio and testimonials).
And then finally, I needed to identify a ‘problem’ that my business was going to solve.
Masterirg the game of freelance gave me all of this and more, and I firmly believe that any budding digital business owner should start here.
As already mentioned, I got paid $50 for my first website – and I had no idea what I was doing, but I had a month to complete everything.
Working every hour of every day, 7 days a week, that ended up being just enough time to learn enough to be able to deliver a really nice end result to what ended up being a very happy first client.
With every subsequent website, my design skills were improving, meaning I could charge more and deliver a better end result, all in less time.
My prospecting also got better. I didn’t have money so what I would do was go to real estate agent websites and write them a personalized message through the contact form on their site where I offered my services and included links to view my growing portfolio and testimonials.
Initially I’d spend up to 30 minutes on each message, thinking that being more personal would give me a better result… that strategy failed miserably.
Then I tried sending copy and paste messages, but that didn’t work either.
After lots of trial and error, I found a way to semi-personalize each message enough so that they seemed personal, even though they were mostly just copy and paste.
This worked great and with just a few hours of prospecting each day I was generating lots of leads, which I then still had to sell, which over time I learned was all about passionately communicating how I the website I built for them would deliver WAY more value than what I was asking them to pay me.
Value that came in many forms – saving them time, reducing their headaches, and most importantly, making them more money.
As my design and sales skills grew, I was able to charge enough to where I could now start saving the money that I would need to lay the foundations of my business, and after building enough real estate websites, I was able to start identifying some specific problems that my business could solve.
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Step 3: Specialize Within a Niche
As a struggling freelance designer, I would hungrily accept every job that was offered to me because I didn’t want to say no to money,
Ironically, this mentality was costing me money, and it’s the biggest mistake that I see freelancers make.
When you specialize within a specific niche, you develop niche-specific skills, you figure out specific processes that allow you to work faster, AND perhaps most importantly, you build a reputation.
At about 1 year into my freelance career, I had built a name for myself within the ‘real estate website’ niche, and was now charging $2000 for sites that were taking me only 2 weeks each to complete.
But I was still stupidly saying ‘yes’ to side jobs, one of which was a $10k ecommerce site (more money that I had ever been offered).
That site took me 10x the amount of time that it took me to build a single $2000 real estate website, meaning that I could have made 2x the amount of total money if I had just focused on real estate websites, not to mention that all the time I spent on a one-off website where I could have instead continued to grow my real estate niche specific skills, reviews & portfolio.
Moral of the story is this: when you work online, you’ll be exposed to lots of different industries and niches. As soon as you find one that seems promising, focus ALL of your time and energy there.
Whether you’re building websites or providing marketing services to ecommerce websites that use Shopify, providing online accounting services for doctors or dentists, or helping YouTubers improve their social media growth.
The failure to specialize in a niche, as a freelancer OR business, will make you less competitive than the freelancers or businesses you’re competing against who do specialize.
Step 4: Create Systems for Repetitive Tasks
When you specialize within a niche, you end up doing a lot of the same things over and over, meaning there are HUGE gains to be made by creating systems.
My first system was for client onboarding, which was basically just
- A form that I’d have my clients fill out
- A dropbox folder where I’d have them upload their logo and any images they wanted to use on the site.
- An email that I’d send to the client explaining all of this 😉
Seeing the amount of time this saved me, I proceeded to create a “go live” system, “prospecting” systems, and even a ‘design system’ which helped me to finish websites in as quickly as 1 week.
It’s really simple guys – the more you specialize within a specific niche, the more you should build systems that help you spend less time on each subsequent project while delivering an equal or superior end result. This is the game.
When I see freelancers who are ‘stuck’, it’s almost always because they don’t have a niche, don’t have systems, or a combination of the two.
And here’s the thing, once you’ve got yourself a niche and some systems, you now have a business.
Granted, it’s a shit business, because you’re the only employee and you’re not making any money unless you’re actually getting new projects, which brings us to…
Step 5: Figure Out How To Generate Recurring Income
Ok so at this point in my freelance career I was earning a good amount of money per project, but if I didn’t have new projects, I wasn’t making money. In the world of freelance, this is what’s called “feast or famine” and it sucks.
To solve this, I decided to charge my clients $20/month for hosting. It wasn’t a lot, but once I had 10 clients paying this amount, I realized that I was now earning $2400 per year ($20 per site x 10 clients x 12 months), all on auto-pilot.
What would happen when I got to 50 clients? 500 clients?
This was a mind-blowing revelation for me, and suddenly the game changed from “how can I charge more per site” to “how can I sell more sites to collect more monthly fees”.
So I developed a real estate website ‘template’ that I could customize in just a few hours and boom, each new website meant more monthly fees.
Within a year my monthly recurring income was now greater than what I had been earning directly through freelance projects!
To put this into the proper perspective for you guys, this meant that I could spend a month in Africa climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, hunting with the Masaii, and eating breakfast next to elefants, and earn more money than when I was actually in the trenches sending prospecting emails, running demo’s and building websites.
There’s a reason why businesses with low or no monthly recurring income have shit valuations. Make no mistake, the name of the game IS recurring income.
Anyway, at this point in my business journey, I was maxxed out at what I could do alone. If I was going to go any further, I was going to need employees.
Step 6: Hire Employees As Soon As It Makes Sense
When you’re just starting out, it’s easy to fall into the “why would I pay someone to do something that I can do better?” mentality.
When you’re broke, this mentality is necessary, but as soon as you’re able to, you need to hire people, starting with hiring for the things that take the most time while involving the least skill.
For me, this meant first hiring for data entry and prospecting.
It was extremely important for me to outsource this stuff as quickly as possible, and while it was crucially important, in my eyes, I don’t really consider it to count as ‘my first employee.’
No, for me my first employee was the one I was worried about hiring, because not only was I going to pay them pretty much all of the profit I was bringing in, but they were going to take over the main thing that I had been doing up until that point; designing websites.
Now was the person I hired as good as me? Of course not… but he was pretty good, and within a few months he was able to take over almost ALL of the design work that I had previously been doing, which meant that I was now free to focus on the most important part of the business: growing it.
Step 7: Systematically Replace Yourself
I focused my free time on marketing and lead-gen… the problem was that I was not particularly good at marketing and lead-gen, and so this was the next thing I hired for.
We now had leads flying in from Google ads at $25/each, which meant we no longer had to spend hours each day sending far less effective prospecting emails.
As already mentioned,, my business has over 50 employees – entire departments for support, design, and sales, and the key that facilitated all of that growth was me constantly looking at the things I was doing and asking the question “is this the best use of my time?”
If the answer was ‘no’, then I knew I needed to hire someone.
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This is the path.